Day 12 +
We are essentially done writing. We got through version 2.1 and basically had everything in place. I added an accompaniment for each song since none of them know how to do that yet. The last step before printing a "final" version is to add dynamics and finish formatting for page turns and whatnot. The four songs all sound completely different. I'm really proud of my students for seeing this project through to fruition. The benefit of the work they've done is that by the time we have the song finalized, they have basically learned it already. It's now mostly a matter of learning the harmonies.
We have a little under a month before the concert (June 14). After the concert, I'll choose one or two of them and I'll make a longer post where I'll show you examples of the process. Thank you for those that have followed along. I hope to be able to present at NAfME and ACDA conventions and other places about this. If you'd like me to help you figure out how to do it with your class, I'd be happy to. I could meet over the phone, over Zoom, or in person. Let's talk!
One last thing....speaking of composition, if you haven't listened to my podcast, Moveable Do, you should. I have a series of interviews where I talk to composers about their lives, musical journeys, and works. Some of the people I've interviewed: Jake Runestad, Jocelyn Hagan, Tim Takach, Rollo Dilworth, Rosephanye Powell, Paul Aitken, Roger Emerson, Kurt Bestor, Kurt Heinecke (VeggieTales), Wayne Lytle (Animusic), Dan Forrest, and Eric Whitacre...just to name a few. I'm closing in on the end of season 4, so I have 50+ interviews for you to binge. Check out Moveable Do!
I couldn't get to this earlier this week, sorry.
Day 10 - I took the suggestions from the "Bare Bones" copy and put them all together and started stitching the individual melodies together so it would be singable from beginning to end. I also added chord symbols so I could provide basic piano accompaniment as we worked - v1.1. In class, we first roughly sang through the entire song from beginning to end to get a feel for it. Then we talked about elements we liked and didn't like. They suggested some note changes; we identified some places where a phrase should repeat; some classes decided that they wanted a solo or two in their piece.
I wanted them to come up with their own harmonies, but I realized that they're not really ready for that. We haven't done enough work on that. Next year, I'll focus on that earlier in the year so they'll be ready for this project. I told them I would suggest some harmonies in v1.2 and they could decide if they like them or want to discard them.
Day 11 - We were now working with v1.2. The song in each class has expanded to 3 pages because I added another staff for harmony parts. We worked through the pieces phrase by phrase and examined the harmonies I had suggested, tried some things out, tried out some solos, and tried to come to pretty firm consensus on the choral parts. I still only have piano chords there. I'm fairly good at comping, but I'm going to start to work on actually writing out the piano accompaniment - mostly so i don't forget what I'm doing on the piano, but also so i can make sure they don't all sound the same by me doing my standard improvisation style.
By the end of Day 11 yesterday, all classes were able to sing from beginning to end of their piece in a manner that truly felt like a song. We've only been doing this for the equivalent of about 2 weeks of school (if we were doing it every day) and we now have 4 songs that are usable and taking amazing shape!
One last note: something surprising happened this week. I've been having a really hard time recently. I was feeling "trapped" teaching middle school. I've really wanted a higher ed position and felt that this job was "beneath" me. I hate to admit it. I haven't felt like that all the time, but I'll admit that the past couple weeks it was really eating at me. Tuesday (Day 10) was a really hard day for me - both in school and out. That evening, I was out in the backyard chopping wood (fallen tree - different story) thinking things over when suddenly I found myself humming some of the melodies that my students had written. Some of the lyrics they chose suddenly came to my mind: "Challenges are what makes life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful," and "Don't limit your challenges, challenge your limits," and "Never forget the ones who saw greatness in you even in your darkest moments." I was suddenly filled with gratitude for my students in a way that I haven't been since I started here. The very students that I had been grumbling about are the very ones that helped me through the problem I was having! What a mind-set shift!
Well...it's time to start writing some piano accompaniment and creating v2.0! I'm not sure what next week will look like - we have school-wide testing on Tuesday and Thursday, so I'll probably have some interruption in the project.
Day 9 - Between Day 8 and today, I transcribed the melodies the decided on on Tuesday. I put them in order on a Finale document and printed it out for them - sort of a "bare bones" version of the song. No harmonies, no chords, just their melodies. I did try to unify the melodies into a key to make the transition easier, but besides that, I tried to be as true to what they sang as possible. To be honest, I wish I had from Thursday to Tuesday to do this part instead of Tuesday to Thursday...but it's done and it's over. It was just a lot of work in a condensed time frame.
In class today, we went phrase by phrase and talked about elements we liked or wanted to change. We made some really good progress today. Some classes even got to talking about chords and major vs. minor. In all but one of my classes we were able to do a (really rough) sing through of the song. It was really cool to hear! They're really buying in to their songs.
Most of the discussions today were extremely positive and productive. I had just a couple students who got their feelings hurt when their suggestion wasn't accepted by the class, but that was the minority today. Usually they just accepted the class decision and were able to move on. As in the past several exercises, they made some choices that I wouldn't have made, but we went with it because the class voted on it.
Before Tuesday, I'll make some changes and work on starting a piano part for each piece. We're making music, y'all!
Day 8 - April 26, 2022
I am so proud of these kids! We listened to all their sound box ideas today and they worked together as a class to figure out what they liked best. I took some time over the weekend to sort them based on text so we could listen to the same text and compare them. Some only had 2 options, some had as many as 5 depending on what they were able to record last week.
The thing that made me proud was how civil the discussion was and the amazing choices they made. I'm really doing my best to stay out of the discussion and just be a guide and mediator. They made some surprising choices that I wouldn't have made if I had been doing it myself. This really will be their piece.
The other really cool thing from today was when they decided that they liked the beginning of one recording and the ending of another and we were able to splice them and put them together to create something new! One class did that about 3 times.
My next task is to put the selected melodies in order to create the "bones" of our song. I'm probably going to write them out (using Finale) to make it easier for me to teach it. Plus, it's going to be pretty cool for them on Thursday when they see their choices represented on the page.
Day 7 - What a difference a day makes! We revisited the idea of composing melodies using the same process as Tuesday. We started with the same texts that we used on Tuesday, but I asked them to get in a group that was working on a different text than they were doing on Tuesday. Since they had done this on Tuesday, the process was much smoother today. They knew how to work with the text and were much more bold at suggesting melodies.
I had groups that were able to find a usable melody within about the first 10 minutes of working instead of taking 35 minutes like before. I opened their Audacity file and added their new tracks. As they recorded one track, I assigned the group to another text. Some groups during the day only came up with one or two, but I had several groups today that laid down 3 or 4 melodies.
I was really surprised by some of the things that they were able to come up with. Their melodies are so much different than what I would have done with these texts...and I love that! This really will be their song!
Challenges: Keeping on task was still a challenge for some students. So today, I addressed those students that weren't fully participating in their groups and separated them into their own group and assigned them a text. They actually responded really well to that and were willing to work in the small group. A couple of my students today had problems working in groups at all and found it easier to work by themselves.
We have an awesome "idea box" in Audacity now. We're going to listen to them next week and try to string it together.
Day 6 - As I anticipated, this was our most difficult day so far. I handed out copies of the text that we made last week, then we separated in 3 groups and tackled three segments of the text to try to come up with melodies. My poor first class always has to deal with me learning how to do this. We didn't talk about style or key today. I just wanted to get them making sounds and experimenting.
I found that it was best to have them start by reading the words aloud to find the important words. Once they had the important words, say the text together with that emphasis. The hardest part - especially for my 7/8 choirs - was getting to the next step: being willing to venture a melody. Each group was eventually able to find something that they were able to sing together. I used Audacity and recorded their segments so we could keep them as a record of today's progress. Some of the ideas may end up in the final piece, some will end up on the cutting room floor, but we at least got some starting points.
Difficult things today: I had a couple rough personality conflicts which made progress slow. I had one group just sing their text to the tune of "Up on the Housetop," so...that's probably not going to work. I had to move quickly from group to group to keep them on task, so I didn't have much time to guide them, though I was able to help a bit. Trying to stay out of the way and let them create is tough sometimes. :)
We're going to do this again on Thursday this week, so we'll see if we learn anything.
Day 5 - Whew! This is an exciting but exhausting project. Keeping the middle schoolers engaged in a positive way during these discussions has been the biggest challenge so far.
Today, we took the poems/quotes that we had narrowed down on Tuesday and created an order with them. I was really surprised the variety of ways that the classes wanted to approach their songs and how much discussion there was. I tried to guide the discussion without imputing too many of my own ideas. Some classes were much more verbal and one was like pulling teeth to get some of the students to participate.
The first class had two poems submitted by two students in the class. The class really responded well to their poems and one became the verses of the song and the other is being used as the opening and closing, sort of like bookends. Theirs will likely have a piano interlude at one point.
The second class decided they had a good quote that wasn't very "songable," but that they still wanted to use. So, they decided to have someone read that quote before the song began. They chose a simple central idea/quote that could be used as a repeated chorus.
The third class also was drawn to a spoken word opening, but they wanted it over choral vocalizations (oo's or ah's) before getting to the text of the piece. They wanted to do the same at the end of the piece.
The fourth class also went with a spoken quote first (the benefit of finding so many good quotes!). They probably have the shortest text, but a strong central idea. I let them know that you don't have to have a super long text to have a good song.
Three of the four classes were able to settle on a title for their piece today as well. The other class was close. They had suggestions, but we ran out of time for a vote. We'll do that next time.
We have lyrics!! We're going to attempt some melodies next time.
Day 4 - I decided that we're going to work on this project on Tuesday and Thursday every week. So, coming back from Spring Break, I had one more day to remind them to submit a poem or quote. Most of them had before Spring Break, but it was nice to have one more day.
I took all the quotes and poems from each class and listed them on a document that I could project on a screen for the whole class to see. I didn't include who submitted each item. I first read each quote and poem aloud so we could get a feel of each submission. I then asked them to think if any of the quotes/poems struck them as particularly meaningful and "songable." It took some prodding to get the ball rolling, but then they were much more open to discussion. I emphasized again that there's no right or wrong, just "more effective" or "less effective."
The 7/8 graders were able to take a broader scope and make connections between several quotes at a time. With the 6th graders, I found it helpful to go quote by quote and poem by poem to judge each one individually. Some students had submitted their own poetry, but the whole class was very supportive of the students' works.
We ended each class with document of possible quotes and bits of poetry that we'd like to use. Our next task will be to put them in an order that we'd like to use and possibly narrow our choices down a bit more.
So, I'm day three into a project to help my students compose and perform their own choral songs for our June concert. I'm currently teaching choir at Jefferson Middle School in Olympia, WA. I have four separate classes - 2 sections of 6th grade choir (Jag Choir) and 2 sections of 7/8 grade choir (Apex Singers). I realized today as I was working that I need to chronicle our process. So, this first post will be a re-cap of the first three days. After this, I will try to update our progress on a regular basis. Starting after Spring Break, we'll be working on this project on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Background - I didn't come up with this idea on my own. I learned about this at the NW-ACDA convention in Spokane, WA in March 2022. Dr. Giselle Wyers (University of Washington) and Dr. Angela Kasper (Western Washington University) presented a session about how they had accomplished this project (over Zoom!) with the choirs at Western Washington. The Advanced Treble Chorale came and performed the song that they had written together...and it. was. amazing!! Now, I don't teach an advanced treble choir at a university. I teach middle school where I've been struggling to get some of my students to even make noise. Nonetheless, I decided that I wanted to give it a go and adapt the ideas to meet my middle school students' needs.
Day 1 - March 14, 2022
I decided to get them used to working in groups and in a position that making noise with their mouths wasn't needed (so they would all participate). We started with body percussion. I realized after my first class that it would be more effective to do this as a whole class first. I started off with a basic beat using stomping and clapping. After the class got in a comfortable loop, I added a new rhythm on top of that one and invited students to join me. They saw what was possible. They separated themselves into groups and I asked them to go through the same process: start with one level, then add a second. All students were required to participate. I moved about the room giving aid where needed if a group was stuck. After several minutes (5-8?), I invited them to move to a group near them and share the rhythms they had created. Through the day, there wasn't one group that had the same rhythm as any other. I had one group at the end of the day that couldn't seem to get anything made, but I think that was a personality issue. Overall, I felt the first day was a success at getting them creating in groups.
Day 2 - March 22, 2022
We talked about themes for our songs. I presented them with a list of core values/themes/ideas that I compiled from the internet. I counted them off randomly into 5 groups and asked them to identify 3 of the items on the list that were important to them. I gave about 5 minutes for this part. We came back together and all the groups shared their three. We ended up with between 12-15 topics (depending on the number of duplicate suggestions). We then took a vote to narrow it down. I let each student vote for their top two (show of hands). We narrowed it down to 4 topics. I then asked each student to select one of the four. We took a second vote, and sometimes a third until we came up with their topics. One class chose Wealth, the next Challenges, the third Loyalty, and the last Loyalty and Love (they were exactly split). I assigned them the task of finding texts for these topics. I told them they could be poems, quotes, or something they wrote themselves. I gave them over a week for this because we had a concert the following Tuesday and had to finish preparation for that.
Day 3 - March 31, 2022
They were to have their selected texts turned in by today. I knew I would need time to compile them before we looked at the submissions, so instead we looked at texts unrelated to their topics. I put together a document of quotes and poems of varying lengths and idea. We looked at two different quotes from Zig Zigler, one from Leo Tolstoy, and one from Henry Ford. We had a discussion about what made a quote "songable" (a term one of my students came up with for if it can be easily made into a song). We talked about the natural rhythm of some texts (ex: "Take time to be quiet" - Zig Zigler; it has a very nice rhythm with emphasis on time and quiet) and how others don't roll off the tongue as nicely, or have awkward words to sing. I asked them to pass that quote from Zigler around the room, each saying it out loud, but trying to say it differently than the person in front of them. We were able to feel the rhythm of the words and see what was important in the text.
Next, we looked at a couple poems from Emily Dickenson. Since her poetry has been set often by composers, we discussed what makes her poetry so songable. We looked at two examples and discussed which would be easier to set then why. Then, I showed them a poem from Shel Silverstein ("Safe?") first without its accompanying picture and then with the picture. It wasn't funny without the picture. The context of a poem goes a long way in determining if it will work for a piece of music. We looked at another Shel Silverstein poem ("The Selfish Child's Prayer") that I set to music years ago for a college music theory assignment. I read the poem and asked them what choices they would make about style as they set this one. We came to the conclusion that since this a prayer, it would probably sound "church-y."
The last poem was called "Where Shall the Baby's Dimple Be?" by Josiah G. Holland. I wanted them to explore and notice the form and how that made this poem songable. The poem is laid out really nicely in a verse/chorus form. They were able to notice that and see how that could help write a song if parts repeat.
The last activity on day 3: we revisited the quotes at the beginning and voted on one to set to music. We talked as a class about the important words. I tried to follow their choices even if they were different than the choices I would make. We underlined the important words. I then had them say a phrase or the whole quote out loud with those words emphasized to notice the natural inflection in their voices. We then made a line sketch above the words to show the natural rise and fall of the voices. We didn't get to the last step which would be to assign actual melodic ideas to the line sketch, but we talked about how it could be done. We'll get to that another day.
If you'd like to keep up on this project, come back often and I'll try to keep posting about our progress. I've never attempted anything like this with any choir let alone middle schoolers. Wish me luck! Here we go!
Something a little different today...before I got into choral composition, I used to write for voice and guitar. I had a less-serious side, songs that I wrote for my "group" Those Two Annoying Guys (me and my friend Kyle). But I also had a serious side to my writing as well. This is one I wrote back in 1998, Land of Dreams. The recording was done in December 2009. I played around with the audio using GarageBand and came out with this video.
As you probably know if you're familiar with my bio or my research, I speak Slovak and was, once upon a time, fluent. I decided to create a singable translation of the song in Slovak and recorded that version as well. It's a tricky thing to translate for meaning, it's a harder thing to make a singable translation. It has to make sense and rhyme. So, here's the Slovak version, Zem Snov.
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Composer, Choral Conductor, DMA Student,